It was like a poker hand with the other player allowed to start with ten cards. That is something akin to what the All Whites faced with being in Lima and facing Peru in that World Cup second leg play-off. Thirty-three point seven-seven million versus eleven and three subs? Almost.
Fireworks in the dead of night that would have graced a Chinese New Year festival, mysterious aircraft refuelling and landing issues, a bus that couldn’t drive over 50 km per hour- the Peruvian version of that god-awful movie ‘Speed’, albeit the reverse scenario, and a military flyover just when they thought they could sneak a little extra sleep. Apart from the merits of the two teams out on the pitch and the home ground advantage to Peru, all that peripheral stuff had to be nearly as detrimental to our chances of getting through to Russia.
Plenty here are willing to pooh-pooh those goings-on as unconnected to the defeat. However, aside from those happenings being noisy, ‘physical’ interruptions, consider the impact on the mental state of the players- of trying to key themselves into the ‘zone’- that way of as seamless as preparation as possible in order to perform at peak. In sport at the highest level every single small percenter counts towards the whole outcome (prefer not to succumb to jargon, but you get the idea). And the connected lack of sleep would certainly have exacerbated their tiredness, on top of no small matter of a degree of jetlag. This is not an excuse for the defeat, but on the other hand it is ignorant and kind of disrespectful to Hudson and his team to brush these factors off completely.
A sub-editor from our largest major daily basically insinuated the All Whites were out-classed in the Lima game. That is hyperbolic claptrap. Respectfully, what game were they viewing? Peru were better, no doubt. However, with a bit more self-belief and with another officiating team that wouldn’t fear for their lives in ruling against the constant shirt-grabbing and manhandling of our players and wouldn’t whistle for a free-kick against Chris Wood as soon as a defender backed into him, our lads could have been in the hunt right down to the wire. Peru were terrified of Wood, and they will be mercifully glad that he didn’t start in both games. Likewise though, the All Whites caught a break with the suspension of Peru’s goal ace, Guerrero.
For a rugby-mad country like us with no professional football league, to get as close as we did to one of the best in South America, was quite something. People said our passing and ball retention wasn’t up to scratch. Compared to Peru, probably so, but compared to efforts this year versus Russia and Japan (two pretty minor sides in a world context), that aspect improved by over twenty percent- particularly in the last two-thirds of the pitch.
If you are looking for a reason for why we couldn’t cross the bridge of defeating Peru, then look no further than the continuing myopia of NZ Football in wanting to remain in the Oceania Confederation. There’s an old saying that you often come down to the level of your opposition, so playing minnow nations from the South Pacific to get to a play-off against countries who have teams full of domestic and overseas professionals is asking far too much. This factor is then compounded by the All Whites playing nobody much of any significance in the four years in between World Cups- apart from at the Confederations Cup.
Weighing it up then, that New Zealand do as well as they do in international football is nothing short of a minor miracle. Nothing else illustrates the heart of those guys better than that. I have taught many Chinese students who also happen to love sport, and I can tell you that the All Whites are practically revered by them for their ability to genuinely compete and not embarrass themselves against the top countries. They are especially held in esteem for those amazing efforts at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.
With more frequent matches against better nations, it is only logical the All Whites would be much improved. Even being completely without this benefit we still compete well. The team is only a couple of players short of being one that could stir genuine nervousness amongst the opposition. I agree with Michael Burgess- Ryan Thomas can be almost anything he wants to be. And I’m more than happy to chow down on a huge slice of humble pie in respect of Winston Reid. I was beginning to think he was a bit of a cart horse, but he was immense and imposing in whatever he did.
Finally, Chris Wood. If he stays relatively injury-free, he will at one of the big clubs sooner rather later. He’s just got it and the footballing world now knows it. A vivid memory from the two matches was in the final minute at Wellington when Wood charged into the box after a one-two with Thomas. Wood and four desperate and worried Peruvians chasing after him, that is. ‘Nuff said.
Sadly for the All Whites and NZ football fans, it’s now basically another four years of being cast out once again into the international wilderness and the backblocks of the South Pacific. In other words, another four years of stagnation and thumb-twiddling until 2021 and the next World Cup play-off and praying for a miracle. And just because we will get automatic entry from Oceania (if we win that group) in 2026 when the World Cup finals tournament is increased in size to forty-eight teams (ridiculous), will that be the panacea to make the standard of our national team suddenly rise? I won’t insult your intelligence with the answer.
And will Anthony Hudson stay on? One would really hope so, but it doesn’t look great. If he does depart, one factor could be due to the lack of quality internationals for he All Whites- another point in the column for reasons to move to the Asian Confederation, you might think.
-‘The Spotter’ (Paul Montague). Find me at: email@example.com